Summer thunderstorms, winding passes, sweeping views over mountains and valleys. Meerkat, buffalo and lion, not forgetting the Cape mountain zebra the park was formed to protect. These are a few of the things that make this place special. To find out what else is in store when you visit, here’s a beginner’s guide to the Mountain Zebra National Park in the Eastern Cape, South Africa.
Scenic game drives and walking trails give you a chance to enjoy the clear air and peaceful mood. Swimming pools and shaded picnic spots along the river’s edge provide welcome relief from the heat in summer, whereas winter is a time for blazing log fires and a warming glass of red wine as snow sprinkles the peaks and high plateaus.
You’ll find the park on the R61 some 12km from Cradock on the way to Graaff-Reinet in the malaria-free Eastern Cape. It’s about 260km or a three-hour drive from Port Elizabeth on the N10.
Almost 70km of the park’s 100km of road is easy to navigate in a normal sedan. There are three 4x4 loops – Juriesdam, Sonnerust and Umgeni – for those with 4x4s but these may be closed in wet weather. You need a high-clearance vehicle to get to the park’s two mountain cottages.
Mountain Zebra National Park is on the eastern edge of the Karoo so don’t be surprised if it can melt your brain in summer and freeze your toes in winter. Expect highs of around 30ºC in summer and lows of 0ºC in winter. When we camped there one winter we woke to find a dripping tap with the water frozen in place like a glacier. There’s also occasional snow on the higher peaks in winter and frost from May to September.
The park gets some 400mm of rain each year, about two-thirds of it falling in the summer months of December, January and February.
1. At the main rest camp there are 4-bed family cottages with braai, electric stove, microwave, fridge, kitchen utensils, WC, bath/shower. The air conditioner is a special treat on hot summer days and the ingenious log fireplaces are great on cold winter nights because they warm both the sitting room and main bedroom.
2. The restored Victorian Doornhoek farmhouse has a wide porch that overlooks the Doornhoek Dam and has great views of the surrounding mountains. It sleeps up to six in three ensuite bedrooms and has a fully equipped kitchen. It is still being rebuilt after the fire of September 2013 and will only open later in 2015.
3. If you’re lucky enough to have a 4x4 vehicle or high-clearance vehicle with diff lock, you can stay at one of the 2-3 bedroom mountain cottages – Umthombo near the Weltevrede picnic site and Bakana in the Berghofkloof. There’s no electricity but the kitchen has a gas stove, solar-powered fridge/freezer, and both outdoor and indoor fireplace/braai, cutlery and crockery. There’s a gas-powered hot-water shower and toilet outside the hut. Two bedrooms are provided with bedding but if you use the 6 bunk beds in the third ‘hikers’ bedroom you need to bring your own bedding.
4. If you’d prefer to pitch your tent or caravan, get close to nature at the well-maintained campsite. You’ll enjoy the birds that come to visit and great views up into the mountains. Good ablutions/kitchens, automatic washing machine and dryer in the laundry. Each site has a power point and there’s plenty of grass and some shade for hot Karoo days.
A small shop sells basics like firewood, bread, meat, tinned foods, cold drinks, ice cream and homemade koeksisters. Although the chalets are self-catering, an à la carte restaurant in the main reception building is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner; the food is good and the service friendly. There’s a buffet lunch on Sundays.
You can buy diesel and petrol in the park. There are swimming pools at the main camp and at Fonteinkloof picnic site, as well as a rock pool at Weltevrede picnic site. You’ll get cell phone reception at the main camp but it can be dodgy in some parts of the park.
Most important are the Cape mountain zebra, which the park was created to protect. From a starter herd of just six individuals, the population has grown to almost 800. Disease-free Cape buffalo and lion are the Big Five animals you can hope to see. If you’re keen to see aardwolf, book a guided night drive for your best chance. Cheetahs are among my favourite animals to spot here and there are currently seven of them (see point 8 below for how you can go tracking them with a guide). ‘Three of the sub-adults will be moved to other national parks,’ says park manager Megan Taplin. ‘This is to manage for genetic diversity in the cheetah metapopulation. We hope to get one or two new cheetah into the park when they are available.’
Bird specials include our national bird, the blue crane, and Denham’s bustard. And don’t forget to enjoy a magnificent view of the stars at night and the Karoo’s glorious sunrises and sunsets.
1. Enjoy one of the short walking trails within the fenced rest camp area. The 1km Imbila Trail is perfect for lazy people who still want to enjoy the peace and tranquility, while the 2.5km Black Eagle Trail takes you to the top of a rocky outcrop. There’s no need to book ahead, but for safety’ sake tell reception when you go.
2. Do the three-day, 25km guided Impofu Hiking Trail if you’re both a nature lover and a serious hiker. Spend two nights in huts in the mountains and return to camp feeling smug. Book ahead with the park’s reception, tel (048) 881-2427.
3. Book a drive in an open 4x4 with a knowledgeable guide who will tell you about the plants, wildlife and geology of the park. Choose an early morning drive, or a sunset drive for a chance of seeing nocturnal species like aardwolf, caracal and porcupine. Ask at reception about availability.
5. Get away from the sedate sedans and take your 4x4 on a game drive along the 14km Sonnenrust trail in the north-west of the Park. It skirts the base of Saltpeterskop and ends on a plateau that gives magnificent vistas of flat-topped mountains and Karoo scrub. It’s a good area to look for cheetahs. Other 4x4 options are the 10km Juriesdam 4x4 trail and the more challenging 8km Umngeni 4x4 trail. There’s no need to book for any of these but it never hurts to let someone know where you’re going in case you get stuck. Note that the 4x4 trails may be closed to all traffic after heavy rains.
6. Go birdwatching. You might see raptors like Verreaux’s and martial eagle, as well as other large birds like secretary bird, blue crane and Denham’s bustard. Smaller birds include larks, rock thrushes, mountain wheatear, orange-breasted rockjumper and red-throated wryneck. The park’s honorary rangers host a birding weekend in October/November and bird identification courses in February.
Mountain Zebra National Park www.mountainzebrapark.com
Tel +27 (0)48-8812427 or +27 (0)48-8813434